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There is a lot of evidence to support the theory that Yuen Woo-ping is the best martial arts choreographer of all time. At the very least his influence over the last three decades of wushu cinema is unmatched, evident in the fact that even if you don’t recognize his name, I’m betting dollars to donuts you’ve seen his work. His early directing gigs with Jackie Chan ( Drunken Master, Chan’s first big international hit) and Sammo Hung (The Magnificent Butcher) put him on the map, and his early-‘90s wire-work heavy, genre reshaping classics Iron Monkey and Tai Chi Master, my two favourite such films of the era, proved he was a director with real vision, and utter control over complex kung fu action. But following his unprecedented work on The Matrix in 1999, Woo-ping became the go-to guy for high-class directors looking for help with fight choreography. His work in the choreography for hire game covered a wide range of films, from the new wave of art house wushu films like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, odes to the genre like Kill Bill and Fearless, comedy spoofs like Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, and even mainstream Hollywood co-productions aimed at younger audiences like Forbidden Kingdom. Unfortunately, this spark of mainstream fame effectively ended his first unit direction in 1996, when he made Tai Chi Boxer. Now Yuen Woo-ping is back as director with True Legend (aka: True Legend of Beggar Su), the maybe true, probably fake story of the legendary Beggar So (here called Su, I assume this is a case of Cantonese vs. Mandarin).

True Legend
Before he developed drunken boxing, Su Can (Vincent Zhao) was a heroic general, who led military forces in a violent raid to save a prince. Following his success, Su is offered a chance at governorship, but turns the Emperor down in favour of living a peaceful life with his wife Ying (Zhou Xun). He suggests his envious stepbrother (and brother in law?) Yuan (Andy On), and retires to start a martial arts school. Five years later Yuan returns, revealing that he’s learned Su’s father killed his father, and is now seeking bloody vengeance.

Visually speaking, True Legend is a definitively modern movie, and for whatever reason not what I was expecting from Woo-ping’s return to the director’s chair. It makes absolute sense that the guy who helped created the slow motion excessive, CG enhanced fisticuffs of The Matrix would embrace the modern era’s most common visual tropes, but apparently nostalgia got the best of me, and I expected something more ‘traditional’. The meat and potatoes of his usual approach is still here, but his camera shakes more often, he cuts more rapidly, and he uses some excessive crash zooms. The crash zooms are the most interesting since they cheapen the quality of some shots, but bring a cool Sam Raimi-like energy to others. The digital work doesn’t impress either. It’s entirely possible that the large budget ($20 million reported, huge for a Chinese film) mandated an excess of digital augmentation and green screen work (it was the first ever 3D produced Chinese film as well), but Woo-ping probably should’ve picked up a few more tricks while working with the Wachowskis. I wasn’t moved by the modern techniques (which is likely unfair of me as a nostalgic fan), but I cannot deny that the fight scenes here are among the best wire-heavy scenes I’ve seen in many years. There’s real artistry in the choreography, there’s real weight behind the punches, and the acrobatics are incredible. Woo-ping doesn’t quite have it in him to create something unique anymore (does anyone?) but there’s definitely some creative juice left in his creative cup, and there is sizable stylistic distinction between the major fights. I also quite enjoy the bloody brutality that seems to accompany most major release wushu movies these days.

True Legend
Despite the modern, and occasionally hyperactive style, the story and characters are relatively old-fashion, meaning the narrative is episodic and simple, and the characters underdeveloped, and more often than not, downright unlikable. Early on I found myself trapped in a culture shock of an epilogue I mostly didn’t understand, but it was easy to keep up with the gist of the more simple proper narrative. It’s easy to understand why Woo-ping took on this particular story. Many of his favourite themes are present, including the spiritual siblinghood shared by the hero and villain, the hero’s near death and spiritual rebirth sitting in the second act, including training montages (all à la Tai Chi Master), impish supernatural masters ( Miracle Fighters), the intricacies of acupuncture and similar period medical techniques ( Iron Monkey), and, of course, drunken boxing. The drunken boxing aspect is most telling. Drunken Master, Woo-ping’s first major success as a director, concerns the early adulthood adventures of the legendary and oft-filmed Wong Fei-Hung. In the movie Fei-Hung is trained by Beggar So (Su) in the ways of drunken boxing. Woo-ping’s next film Dance of the Drunken Mantis (which I’ve never seen) was a follow-up adventure for Beggar So. Drunken boxing would also feature in 1983’s Shaolin Drunkard, and Drunken Tai Chi, and Wong Fei-Hung would be an important part of Magnificent Butcher and Iron Monkey. I assume this is all a form of fan-service on Woo-ping’s part. Perhaps working with Quentin Tarantino has given him a taste for the post-modern. Woo-ping doesn’t fully deal with the dark implications that could accompany drunken boxing in the real world (someday someone will make a great movie about drunken boxing and alcoholism, and it will be a JCVD-style vehicle for an older Jackie Chan), but he doesn’t shy away from some darkness altogether either. The third act feels like an entirely different movie, and goes overboard on the melodramatic scenes (the little kid is mostly here to cry, apparently), but it’s still heartening to see Woo-ping exploring something outside his comfort zone.

True Legend

Video


Director Yuen Woo-ping and cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao have created a lush and textured environment (some of which aired in 3D during the film’s initial Chinese theatrical run), which works quite well for this 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer. Like many fantastical period pieces, True Legend colour coats its characters to a certain degree, though not as garishly as something like Zu: Warriors of the Mystic Mountain, or even Hero. Black and red are definite theme colours early in the film, and the positioning of these colours mostly defines the allegiance of the characters. During the opening brawl the red really helps to differentiate the characters in the darkness. Later the palette is widened to include the gorgeous greens of the mountain landscape. Colours are relatively consistent in hue and purity, and there’s no obvious bleeding. Details are generally most impressive in close-up, but also reveal complex textures in both the cold, mostly blackened palace sets, and the rich natural landscapes. The clarity is occasionally even a problem, mostly for the less than ‘Hollywood’ digital effects, and Yuan’s uneven white (sometimes blue?) make up. Night scenes feature a blue tint, and though still quite sharp, and generally clean, these darkest shots tend to feature noticeable edge enhancement, especially in wider shots. Haloes are also present in the more evenly lit wide shots, but still relatively uncommon. I am left questioning some of the jittery establishing and slo-mo shots. The skipping effect is so obvious I assume it was a stylistic choice, but if anyone has seen the film on a different format, or perhaps a different blu-ray release, I’d like to know if they noticed it too.

Audio


True Legend comes fitted with a very impressive and busy DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. This track takes every opportunity to incorporate every channel into the mix during the fight sequences, which are then set nicely against the largely quieted dialogue scenes. Some of the surround effects are more obvious and natural, such as swinging fists, clanging swords, and zippy arrows, but I was more drawn to the more stylistically bizarre effects. Yuan’s iron hand technique is especially loud, mixing the sound of metal hitting metal with the usual noise of a kung fu punch, and echoing out from center screen throughout the channels. Later, during Yuan and Su Can’s rematch each impact is heightened, and the rear speakers shift with a sort of white noise. However, the most abstract sound mix is utilized for the slow motion heavy God of Wushu training scenes, which features a wash of swirling directional noise, and huge dynamic sound range. These also feature noticeably more aggressive use of the LFE track, which is more punchy and realistic throughout the rest of the film.

True Legend

Extras


Extras begin with a series of five featurettes. ‘Drunken Fist Master’ (4:00, SD) features Woo-ping, and screenwriter Christine To discussing the basic plot, and general themes and character motivations in an obvious EPK format against scenes from the film. David Carradine shows up briefly at the end to describe his character. ‘The Militia’s Fortress’ (6:00, SD) features Woo-ping, and effects supervisor Ellen Poon discussing the effects heavy opening sequence. ‘Thousand Buddha Cliff’ (3:50, SD) features Woo-ping, Poon, cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao, sound designer Tao Ding, and actor Jay Chou discussing the effects heavy Lord of Wushu scenes, complete with footage of the construction of the set, footage of sound effects recording, and rehearsals. ‘Capturing Classical China’ (3:30, SD) features Woo-ping, To, Zhao, actress Zhou Xun and producer Zhenyan Zhang, discussing the difficulty of stunts, location shooting and production design, complete with applicable behind the scenes footage. ‘Choreographed Drunkeness’ (6:40, SD) features Woo-ping, Xun, and actor Vincent Zhao discussing the film’s fight choreography, and includes more behind the scenes footage, including Woo-ping directing actors and Vincent Zhao’s training.

Other extras include two storyboard to scene comparisons, ‘Opening Sequence’ (1:30, HD) and ‘Brother vs. Brother’ (1:10, HD), an ‘Axis of Envy’ music video by The Shadow Bureau (3:40, HD), the international trailer, and trailers for other Vivendi releases.

True Legend

Overall


Well, True Legend features a lot of what Yuen Woo-ping does best, but beyond its frenetic, and definitely cool fight scenes it doesn’t hold a lot of weight. It’s worth a watch for wushu fans looking for little more than a handful of well executed bits of hand to hand combat, not fans of well rounded screenplays and likeable characters. Fans of Michelle Yeoh, David Carradine and Gordon Liu should also be warned that all three actors have very little presence in the film. This Blu-ray release looks sharp and colourful, with only minor artefacts, and the DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack is explosive. The extras are nominal.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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